Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bringing It All Back Home by Nicola Lagioia

Bringing It All Back Home (the name of a famous album by Bob Dylan) is a translation from the original Italian of the award-winning novel Riportando tutto a casa.  It is a coming-of-age story that ends in an "abyss of regret and sleepless nights" from which the narrator has yet to escape, in the words of the narrator himself.

The changes that took place in Italy during the 1980s are portrayed through the adult intellect of a man looking back critically and sardonically at his and his country's Regan-era boom years.  The narrator comes to recognize the huge socio-economic and moral divide that exists between his generation and his parents' generation, and the marked moral lapses they both share. 
It was ...1986, the year of AIDS and of runaway success for entrepreneurs, of the compact disc, the video recorder, children who hated their parents, and automated garages that rose up into the sky.

1980s pop-culture, much of it American, is mentioned in the book, including Dirty Dancing

The narrator is from Bari, Apulia, in southern Italy, and he is the first generation of young people in Italy to experience freedoms such as divorce, easy financial credit, secular education, and trashy commercial TV.

Being the '80s, and being about teenagers, three in particular, there are lots of pop-culture references and song lyrics to set the scenes, and to pad out the minimal plot.  The young adults' relationships with their parents are the main points of the book, along with the relationships of the young people with each other, and with the world at large. 

The author gifts the narrator with a sharp eye on the adults around him:
My father was descended from generations of people who had nothing to their names, who worked other people's lands, cleaned other people's toilets, fought in wars where you could never tell who had won what.
The book features three young men from the generation born with one foot in the near-past, and the other foot set firmly in the Information-Age.  This gives them a perspective that people born in the '80s and '90s do not have. 

The narrator goes back to discover his past, like Marty in Back to the Future, but without all the fun

Many children of the '60s and 70s have a unique self-awareness, and an awareness of the miraculous changes that society has been subjected to since the advent of near-universal access to reliable birth-control, and to a shrinking of the planet due to instant-communication and near-universal access to a means for instant-publishing/broadcasting of personal views.

The way the world works and doesn't work all across the globe is no longer a mystery.  So when the narrator's father speeds along in the car, passing police cars and ambulances, and running red lights, the child can recognize the errors of Italy, of which is father is oblivious, or willfully oblivious.

Television news channels brought the same news to people all around the globe in the '80s, making us all less insular, including Italians, but also spurring more fear of others and catastrophe

Despite the growing wealth in Italy in the '80s, the narrator's father, due to his upbringing in poverty, felt as if he'd "made it onto the ship, and yet he still felt like an illegal immigrant".  I suspect a better translation for the last word in the previous sentence would have been "stowaway". 

Poor, rural women, who "lived in a kind of hovel and saw universal suffrage as just another aspect of the submission they needed to show their husbands" are remnants of pre-industrial civilization, living and working alongside "the tamed nightmare of civilization".

The young people in the book are coddled only-children who are caught up in their families' ambitions and familial shame.  The children are damaged, unable to deal with their parents, who are themselves damaged by their ill-preparation for the new-society.  For the parents, neglect follows wealth, as wealth opens new doors to enjoyment.  For the children, the neglect combined with wealth opens dangerous doors to vice.


Teenaged gore-fests become gorier in living-color in the 1980s

The narrator shows in the minute, memoirs-like narrative, dense with detail, that education and easy credit were the keys to the economic growth, luxuries the reward of economic growth, isolation the risk of wealth, and moral bankruptcy the most certain outcome of the '80s in Italy.

The book traverses most of the 1980s:
The Eurythmics were back on the charts.  Dirty Dancing was at the box office.  The Iron curtain was still standing.  Margaret Thatcher had been re-elected for a third term.  There we were, back in 1987.

The way President Regan is mentioned in the book one would think he had been President of the World, his influence on the Cold War affecting everyone, especially Europeans

Another aspect of 1980s Italy takes center stage in the second half of the book:  the heroin epidemic, the "whale of our generation" that swallowed them up.  Presumably, the cheap heroin from war-torn Afghanistan was the impetus for legions of middle-class Italian children to head to drug dens. 

The author explains the reason they indulged in the cheap drugs to be the appeal of drugged up sex, broad based rebellion, boredom, and to escape societal and parental pressures.  I'm always dubious when people give "reasons" for drug and alcohol abuse.  Each case is unique, but social pressure and a desire to switch off the brain to escape personal responsibilities are most often behind it, at least before physical addiction takes over.

"Portrait of Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi Smiling", I noticed lots of "missing" Italian pop-culture in the novel, oddly, although some television shows were mentioned

We move to the near present, too, to see why our narrator went on his journey into his past, and how this book came to be.  When wanting to reconnect with people in his past:
The first move was to turn to the one great, perfectly visible and certified revolution in the recent history of the human race [the Google search-engine].
The author gives his narrator some insights into the present as well as the past.  He finds people's excessive self-exposure on social network sites as a "strategy of concealment--attempts at diversion".  He even admits that his search to flesh out his own history, this book, is pointless: 
...the material reconstruction of an old story is always insufficient, arrogant, incomplete.  And it's nothing.

The seeds of the Internet were planted in the decades before the '80s, like this supercomputer at Los Alamos, and the Internet allows the narrator to retrace his past

The author is clearly well-read and well-studied, and he possesses a literary fluency, dotted with rich, associative, poetic passages.  There are times when the verbosity tends to excess and showiness, and there are times when the line between art and vulgarity is crossed.  The translation is excellent, as is the editing.  Often the chapters left a nasty taste in my mouth, as if the author's and the narrator's cynicism was contagious.  The details of the novel suggest it is partially autobiographical.

I would imagine the appeal of the book would be mainly to people who lived through the times depicted, who might want a nostalgic look back through eyes that have become as wise as their own, or wiser.  All the major historical and social events are mentioned, and '80s fashion is described throughout.

As a non-Italian, but one who lived in Italy during this period, the appeal is more of curiosity and as a means of seeing Italy through the eyes of an extremely expressive local, which is why I requested a review-copy.  If you are a non-Italian, the appeal might be to see your 1980s from a different angle, from the perspective that comes from life in Bari, Apulia.

You get the feeling the narrator would like to blast his past away much like Dirty Harry in the 1983 Sudden Impact

From the book's description:
Giuseppe has red hair, pimples, and an inexhaustible reserve of money in his wallet. Vincenzo is good looking and serious, like any respectable adversary. The third friend is the one telling the story: with caustic precision, this restless narrator records dizzying teenage discoveries, the lazy inertia of the high school years, and the plunge into adulthood.

The city is Bari in southern Italy, the time, the 1980s. The era of ideologies has been killed off—the streets are full of optimism; commercial television channels are recalibrating people’s desires and aspirations; “something akin to a storm front of madness” is running through Italy’s economy. The times are moving fast, and the glow of so much burned money lingers on. And under those ashes lies still more money, smoldering with the desire to be passed from hand to hand.

And yet, as the three boys tackle life’s challenges, it becomes clear that things are not so simple. Despite their families’ evermore luxurious homes, despite the success of their fathers (a businessman obsessed with social climbing, a famous lawyer, and a talented ex-mechanic who has borrowed money from the wrong people), despite their mothers— or stepmothers—who wear out designer heels walking from one shop window to the next, the radar behind these adolescents’ eyes detects unexpected vibrations.

Nicola Lagioia has written a mature, angry coming-of-age novel. The writing is taut, perceptive, and precise, reaching sparkling heights in a story of friendship, betrayal, and generational conflict, which ultimately takes us to the beginnings of our own time in history, and to the eternal adolescence of a country that is growing old without ever having grown up.

Here's a view of the 1980s from newscasters at the end of 1989, also with prescient views of the decades to come:

Bringing It All Back Home is published by Open Road Media.
Open Road Integrated Media is a digital publisher and multimedia content company. Open Road creates connections between authors and their audiences by marketing its ebooks through a new proprietary online platform, which uses premium video content and social media. Open Road has published ebooks from legendary authors including William Styron, Pat Conroy, Jack Higgins, and Virginia Hamilton, and has launched new e-stars like Mary Glickman.

Here is a direct link the Bringing It All Back Home at in paperback and e-book editions:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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